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Hugo Rifkind

Why can’t we be honest about Syria?

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

Wouldn’t it be nice just once in a while to have a war in the -Middle East that wasn’t predicated on outright duplicitous nonsense? Just occasionally? There are, after all, any number of sincere reasons one could advance for intervention now in Syria. (If one thought that was a good idea, which as it happens one doesn’t.)

One could say, for example, that Bashar Assad is a nasty murderous bastard, and that now he’s gained the upper hand he’s almost certain to indulge in some even nastier, more murderous murdering than he’s been enjoying hitherto. Pretty good, that. Pretty hard to argue against. Or one could argue that a Sunni-controlled Syria would radically reshape the whole region, choking Hezbollah, isolating Iran and generally making the world better, and that without western help, it looks unlikely to happen. Bit naive, but still at least it would be sincere.

One could point to contagious instability in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. One could cite the spiralling death toll, and say that, after so many deaths, and with the prospect of many more, western moral integrity requires wading in. One has plenty of options. But America hasn’t done any of these things, has it? No. Instead, Mr Obama’s administration cites blood and urine tests which show, probably, that about one in a thousand of those deaths were probably caused by chemical weapons. ‘Yes, Qusayr has fallen and Aleppo is about to,’ goes the official line. ‘Yes the tide of this war is turning, quite abruptly, and suddenly it looks as though the regime might hold on. But that’s coincidence. The big thing is, we’ve got the tests back.’

Why? Why do they feel the need to do this? Why the instinct towards obfuscation? It’s hard to know, really, exactly when one ought to object to this sort of thing. Already it seems petty, nitpicking and beside the point. I write this having just heard -William Hague talking Syria on the radio without even mentioning it. Speaking alongside Vladimir Putin last Sunday, David Cameron merely referred to a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’. Look, it’s not that I don’t think Assad has been using the things; if the CIA says he has, I’m inclined to take their word for it. But come on. Do we really believe this is anybody’s true motive for wanting to get involved?

Probably it’s a legal thing, with an alleged breach of international law putting you on safer ground for intervention than you’d have without. But it pollutes the debate, like these things always do. It’s like the pretence that we got rid of Gaddafi simply because he was about to commit slaughter in Benghazi. I mean, yes, he was, and it’s good that he couldn’t. But actually we got rid of him because he was a wrong ’un, and if we hadn’t had that pretext, once he was on the back foot we’d have found another. And let’s not even get started on WMD in Iraq. Whether they existed or not, they were only ever going to be an excuse.

It’s a delicate point I’m making here, pernickety even. There’s a whole other argument to be had about whether intervention is right or wrong, wise or foolish, in Syria or elsewhere. I’m just objecting to the way we do it. We’re the free West, the good guys. Going to war, we need to be at our most straightforward, clear-cut and irreproachably honest. If we think it’s the right thing to do, we ought to be loudly and openly doing it for just the reasons why we think that. Hunt around, after all, and the fantasists are already gearing up. It’s about Israel, or the military industrial complex; it happened because Bilderbergers struck a deal in Watford — whatever. A month ago, I read a mainstream, elaborate and apparently heartfelt case that the Syrian civil war was all about rival gas pipelines from Qatar and Iran.

Me, I don’t buy any of that stuff. It’s just about evil nutters fighting other evil nutters, and the western desire to make them stop. And even when the West is misguided, naive, hubristic or outright wrong, that’s pretty much always what it’s about. So if only we could say that. You know. Just once in a while.

Leak inquiry

Spies spying on the people we have spies to spy on is hardly news, but the Guardian’s series of intelligence disclosures over the past fortnight has still been formidable. From a media geek trainspotter perspective, though, one of the most interesting things about it has been the fact that this stuff ended up being leaked to the Guardian at all. Whatever happened to Wikileaks?

Sure, Julian Assange now lives in a cupboard in Knightsbridge with a sunbed, but his organisation still exists. I wonder if Edward Snowden’s decision to shun it is indicative of its wider failure. Wikileaks, in as much as I understand its philosophy, was always supposed to be a neutral platform. You leak stuff safely and the boffins publish it to the world. Only under the control of Assange that’s never quite what happened. Instead of being more impartial than mainstream journalism, Wikileaks became rapidly less so. Good old activists. They don’t half make us hacks look good.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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